Mark Twain once described the coyote as "a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery."
Twain obviously didn't have a handle on the canine's vitality, treachery and extraordinary talent for survival. The coyote has not only persevered, but it has also thrived in the face of a century of intense pressure.
The fight against the stockmen's major foe has taken many forms through the years. Coyotes have been penned, trapped, snared, gunned down from the air and, of course, poisoned. They've had their dens dug up to kill the pups. Nevertheless, coyotes are having a heyday of sorts. In the Northeast, where coyotes never roamed before this century, they are now firmly established and are being regarded as a threat. In the West they are enjoying a glorious renaissance. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are now an estimated 1.4 million of the cunning canines, and they inhabit part of every state but Hawaii.
Why? "In 1972 most uses of toxicants were banned by executive order and subsequent rulings by the EPA," says Jeff Green, wildlife biologist for the USDA's Animal Damage Control Program in Denver. "Environmental consciousness and public sentiment favored using and finding more innocuous techniques for reducing predator damage to livestock." Innocuous techniques aren't always the most effective techniques. Last year, "predator damage" in the U.S. amounted to nearly 500,000 killed sheep, and it is believed more than two thirds of that number were done in by coyotes.
Sheep are not too bright. For instance, if a herding dog makes a mistake, an entire flock can go tumbling off a mountainside. Furthermore, sheep are not too brave. When coyotes are hunting, they will ravage scores of lambs while the ewes just stand by in agony and bleat. Last year coyotes cost American livestock producers an estimated $47.4 million.
What the USDA has suggested as one coyote-curbing alternative to poisons, and what many stockmen have employed, is an increased use of guard animals. They don't use just the traditional dogs, either. Llamas have been deployed and, recently, burros, too.
Coyotes are neophobic—afraid of new things—and if a rancher exploits this fear of the unknown he can afford newborn livestock a few vital weeks to get bigger, stronger and up-and-running. In seeking something strange to scare the coyotes, what could be better than a big-headed, skinny-legged, sad-eyed donkey? Furthermore, this cousin of the horse has a temperament that suits it for a role as guardian. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which sometimes rounds up excess wild horses on public lands by running them into canyons with helicopters and then corralling them, does not use the same method with burros because the inquisitive and stalwart beasts would just stand their ground and watch the whirlybirds go by. Then, too, after the scarecrow factor of burros wears off and the coyotes creep closer, the donkeys use other intrinsic talents that repel predators. They make horrible noises, and since they're bigger than coyotes they just stomp the intruders.
Nanci Falley is a fifth-generation Texan who runs Rancho San Francisco—"named after the saint, not the city"—near Lockhart, Texas. She has 190 acres, comprising four pastures of grass and mesquite brush, with a few oak trees. She keeps geese, chickens and goats, all of which are vulnerable to carnivores. She also has two dozen breeding donkeys that produce an average of 16 jacks and jennets annually. Half of the burros are sold as guards, the rest as pets. Falley gets $150 for each male baby and $300 for a female. A pregnant jennet fetches $500.
Falley has raised donkeys for 20 years and believes about 85% of the ones she has seen would be good guards. "Donkeys have instincts to herd, and a natural dislike for dogs and coyotes," she says. "When isolated from other donkeys and put into a flock of sheep when young, they get lonesome, bond easily and develop protective instincts toward their flock." She says that one burro guard can handle a flock of 75 to 100 sheep in a fenced pasture. "They work great there. I think donkeys need to establish territory."
Falley and other ranchers who have seen it happen say that when a coyote approaches, the sheep line up behind their donkey as it brays, kicks and even charges the predator. "Most donkeys will flee in terror from bears and mountain lions," says John Conter of Billings, Mont., who breeds guard burros and is president of the American Council of Spotted Asses, an organization dedicated, believe it or not, to the promotion of donkeys with spots. "But there is no doubt donkeys will protect sheep by scaring off coyotes."
Detractors say that a guard burro has the brains of its wards, that it stands in the middle of a flock of threatened sheep and does next to nothing. "If donkeys work, I think it must be on small, fenced pastures, because they sure don't seem to work on the open range," says rancher Buster Dufurrena of Winnemucca, Nev. In five days in 1989, coyotes killed 18 of his pregnant ewes while they were being watched by a burro.
Donkey fans and foes alike agree that at the very least, an excited burro's maniacal hee-haw can be frightening to a coyote—at least more so than a ewe's bleat.
Of 11,000 sheep and goat raisers in Texas, about 15% now use donkey guards. A 1989 survey showed that 59% of Texas guard donkeys were rated by their owners as "good" or "fair" in the fight against predation. And since burros are unbothered by other predator-management tools—trapping, poisoning devices (which are still used both legally and illegally in the West)—they at least add a modicum of extra protection in any kind of defensive system.
Johnnie Reed of Leander, Texas, uses a donkey to protect his Angora goats. "A dog is not as good at guarding as a donkey," he says. "Dogs will forget about the sheep and goats if something interesting comes along. Dogs can't be trusted."
Guard dogs—generally Great Pyrenees, akbash, komondors and Anatolian shepherds—have been used successfully in Europe and Asia for thousands of years. As with burros, individual dogs behave differently. Ranchers say that if a dog bonds with the herd or flock early and develops a protective instinct, and if it doesn't play too hard and injure the sheep and lambs, and if it doesn't get sick or wander, or destroy property, or interfere with a herding dog, or attack humans, or get run over by a car or caught in a coyote trap, then the dog is a good guard. A surprising number of dogs meet these criteria. A 1987 USDA survey showed that 71% of guard dogs used by 400 sheep producers for several years were deemed "very effective" in reducing predation.
One advantage of using dogs is that two or more of them can be effective over a large area. If two donkeys are put together, they tend to buddy up and ignore their guard duties. But donkeys are cheaper to buy—good dogs cost about $300 to $500 each—and easier to maintain. And they can work 15 years or more, while almost a third of the guard dogs deployed at the USDA Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho beginning in 1977 had died or been culled before they reached age three.
A burro guarding a flock of sheep is an interesting sight, to be sure, but there's a far more exotic sentinel on the range. In 1985 Colorado rancher Ed Garrison paid $800 for a llama because he had heard that the animal was a good sheep protector. Garrison, who runs 800 ewes near Montrose, had lost 150 lambs the year before to predators. He had tried shooting and trapping coyotes, but with little success. He had used human shepherds and Pyrenees dogs. "But nothing worked like Oscar," Garrison says now, smiling at his long-necked llama. "He stays with the sheep, moving back and forth, back and forth. The minute the sheep start running, as if a coyote is in amongst them, Oscar goes right to where the trouble is and runs the coyote off." Garrison reckons he has cut his losses to near zero since he got the llama. "If a feller offered me $10,000 for Oscar," he says, "I wouldn't take it. He's saved us way more than that."
"But," says Green of the USDA, "mountain lions can kill llamas, and so can two or three coyotes. And female llamas are costing $5,000, with males now between $1,000 and $2,500."
Sheepmen have a grudging admiration for their ingenious foe. Probably no other North American predator has faced more schemes and devices designed to prevent it from killing livestock, yet the coyote has learned to outsmart most of them. "A coyote that has been hunted from the air," Green says, "when it hears a plane, it will run under a bush and lie still until the plane's gone." And a coyote that has gotten used to the tactics of a certain guard animal will steal ever closer to grab livestock. So some ranchers are willing to try anything—anything—new under the sun. Welcome, llamas. Welcome, donkeys.
C.J. Hadley, the editor of "Range Magazine, lives in Carson City, Nev.